Sunday, February 02, 2020

  • Sunday, February 02, 2020
  • Elder of Ziyon
I already knew that Yoram Hazony was brilliant from his "The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture" and I have always wanted to read his book about Esther. I was not disappointed.

Megillat Esther is perhaps one of the best-known stories in the Hebrew Scriptures, but Hazony's analysis in God and Politics in Esther reveals themes and depths that I never imagined.

Hazony's main thesis is that Esther is a book about politics. More specifically, it is a blueprint on how Jews must act politically in the Diaspora, since Esther is one of the few Biblical stories that takes place primarily when Jews are under foreign rule. He presents Mordechai as being a master politician, becoming well known among King Ahashverosh's advisors and able to see things from multiple perspectives (his interpretation of the rabbinic assertion that Mordechai knew 70 languages.)

Esther, his cousin and adopted daughter, was his protege in understanding how to gain favor from those who know her. For example, when Esther was to be presented to the King to spend the night, she only wants to adorn herself according to the advice of Hegai, the king's chamberlain, and nothing more. Hegai has a vested interest in finding the perfect mate for the king, and he knows the king well, so Esther in this case trusts him implicitly, which makes him prefer her over the other girls, and helps contribute to the king finding favor in Esther as well.

Mordechai and Esther both want to use politics to their advantage, and Mordechai doesn't want either of them to make a big deal about their Jewishness. But things change when Haman becomes the king's vizier. Hazony explores the question of why Mordechai didn't bow down to Haman - why he suddenly was willing to make waves, and endanger the Jewish people, which is not a very political thing to do. After all, Jews are allowed to bow to royalty and to those close to royalty, as the story of Joseph shows.

Before Haman, the king had a series of advisors that would help the king make the best decisions. After the episode of the attempted coup against the king that Mordechai foiled, Ahashverosh became more paranoid about his advisors, and he essentially hired Haman to be the only confidant. This changed the entire texture of the kingdom as Haman arrogated himself to be close to a deity himself, making all decisions as an all powerful being - an idol. This crossed the line from a politician that a Jew can work with to one who is a mortal enemy, as idol worship is abhorrent. Mordechai, essentially alone, started a one-man protest against the new order of Persia which only accelerated when Haman convinced Ahashverosh to destroy all the Jews.

Hazony brings numerous parallels between the events in Esther and those of other Jews who were in high political positions in foreign lands - mostly Joseph and Daniel. Interestingly, he is harsh on Joseph, who had to walk the line between pleasing Pharaoh and doing what is best for his people - if he crosses the line, his ability to help his family would plummet to zero, so he spends more time protecting his position than using it to full advantage.

Esther, once she understood the gravity of the situation, realized that she must risk her position to save the Jewish people, something Joseph never really did. Joseph's brilliance in saving Egypt was a contributor to the Jews ultimately becoming slaves; he saved them from immediate starvation but was too paralyzed to go beyond that. Esther risks it all.

Her plan is brilliant. She gives her husband reason to become jealous of Haman by inviting both of them to what should have been a romantic banquet for two, starting a chain of events where the king is unable to sleep that night, worrying about whether Haman is becoming too close to the Queen which prompts the events allowing him to be reminded of Mordechai's saving his life. When he asks Haman how to honor someone, his answer reveals to the king that Haman has unlimited ambition including to the throne itself. This all primes the king for the second banquet, which brought Haman's downfall.

But the story is not done. The king shows no interest in saving the Jews, and for two agonizing months Mordechai and Esther wait while Haman's followers prepare for all out war on Jews. Esther must once again put her life on the line to ask for a solution, one which he delegates to Mordechai to find a way not to contradict his existing edict.

God and Politics in Esther weaves through its pages an entire philosophy of politics itself. Beyond that, Hazony includes essays on antisemitism, the morality of the Jews' war on its enemies, and an extended treatise on how God is - and isn't - a part of the Esther story which famously doesn't mention God once. Hazony convincingly argues that there is no distinction between what we call "miracles" - unexplainable phenomena that help save Jews - and things that seem natural or prompted by man's actions. The Tanach says that "God was with" many men who did actions that seem to be quite natural. God may be hidden since the times of the Prophets, but He is there.

The ideas that Hazony brings applies to all eras. Rabbis famously studied the story of Jacob preparing to meet Esau before they would meet with despotic rulers to plead their case for the Jews; this book makes one think that Diaspora Jews who enter politics should closely study Esther.

Moreover, Jews who avoid politics even at the grassroots level should reconsider that decision. Change happens when you are willing to make waves and act independently.

Especially in these weeks before Purim, this is a book that will make you look at Esther in ways you never imagined.





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